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Is Nate Schmidt the Caps' Best Blueliner to Date?

Taking a look at the quiet contributions of a surprise mainstay on the Capitals' blueline.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

On a Washington Capitals’ blue line that boasts a defenseman with over 300 career points in Mike Green, a former top-5 pick in Karl Alzner, US Olympian John Carlson, and a pair of 5-million-dollar men in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, it’s undrafted University of Minnesota graduate Nate Schmidt who’s turning heads through the first 29 games of the season.

Not only does Nate Schmidt have the best GA/20 amongst Caps’ defensemen who’ve played more than 10 games, but he's also got a better GF/60 than any of his position-mates.

More impressive is that Nate Schmidt leads all defensemen (and all Caps skaters who’ve played at least 22 games) in GF% Rel. Distilled, what this means is that for no player is there a greater positive difference in GF% (a percentage representation of +/-) when he’s on the ice versus off.

To be even clearer: if percentages existed in a vacuum, by putting Nate Schmidt on the ice, Barry Trotz maximizes the likelihood that the Caps score and the opponent does not.

Obviously percentages do not exist in a vacuum, and there are plenty of wildcards at play that contribute to Schmidt’s gaudy statistics. But more on that shortly. First, let’s step away from his impressive on-ice scoring numbers, and take a look at possession.

Not much to shake a stick at here either. Schmidt (53.2% CF) plays second fiddle to only Mike Green (55.4%) in this regard, and he makes it happen on both sides of the ice. His 50.59 CA/60 is again trumped among defensemen only by Mike Green’s 45.98 (noticing a theme?), and his 57.58 CF/60 leads every-day Washington blueliners.

Not bad, right? Okay, then why is he taking 18 shifts a game, and playing 14 minutes a night when the pacesetters Carlson and Orpik are taking nearly 10 more shifts per game and playing some 9 more minutes.

Well, Schmidt isn’t exactly playing tough minutes (which is pretty much what you’d expect from a bottom-pairing defenseman), and his zone starts have been favorable as well. Mike Green— and Schmidt’s most frequent d-partner— is the only blueliner who’s started more shifts in the offensive zone, and as you might have deduced, is also the only blueliner who’s started fewer shifts in the defensive zone.

So, what gives? Is Schmidt lucky, or is he truly playing this well? …or is he just reaping the benefits of playing with Mike Green?

Well, he’s not not lucky. He’s got a defenseman-leading 102.3 PDO, and the goaltenders have played well for him, boasting a .938 save %. For no other defenseman is that number above a .918%. Schmidt also leads Caps blueliners in on-ice shooting percentage (8.46%). So yeah, a few performance metrics that are sometimes associated with luck— or more accurately, fickle metrics that usually level out as data samples increase in size— are looking good for Schmidt.

But let’s take a look at the forwards he most commonly shares the ice with: Marcus Johansson (135 minutes of shared 5v5 TOI), Troy Brouwer (122 minutes), Andre Burakovsky (117 minutes) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (90 minutes). All of these forwards, with the exception of Burakovsky, have seen their possession numbers bolstered when on-ice with Schmidt.

But it’s not the possession numbers that are truly spectacular here. It’s the scoring numbers. Seriously, check this out.

Skater GF% w/ Schmidt GF% w/o Schmidt % Difference
Johansson 71.4 27.3 44.1
Brouwer 77.8 34.8 43
Burakovsky 72.7 33.3 39.4
Kuznetsov 75 45.5 29.5

Pretty clear that it’s probably not the forwards driving the play behind the numbers. It stands to reason that Mike Green’s presence on that blueline is helping inflate the numbers, but Schmidt’s performance has still been pretty ace in the 140 minutes of 5v5 play he’s seen without Green.

And while it’s okay to acknowledge that Schmidt’s been dealt a pretty good hand as far as his deployment and it’s impact on his performance metrics go, you gotta give the guy credit for making the most of it. And for a team with a new Trotz-stamped focus on discipline, on the blueline only Karl Alzner takes penalties at a lower rate than Schmidt (though, given his slick skating and propensity for carrying the puck, you’d think he’d draw them a bit more frequently).

All in all, the guy has played well, hands down. For sure, you’d like to see what he might do with some tougher (and perhaps more) minutes, but as Peter Hassett alluded to yesterday, it looks like Schmidt is another winsome contribution to the Capitals’ propensity for bargain blueliners.

Has he been the Caps best blueliner? Nah, that’s his linemate, Mike Green, but Schmidt’s sure done nothing to anchor Green’s performance, and done plenty to contribute to it.